Shen Dao and the Daodejing

Many passages in the Daodejing remarkably resemble passages in Shen Dao. The dating of the Daodejing (which was produced in stages) is only approximate (roughly 350 BC to 250 BC is my guess), and the dating of Shen Dao is also uncertain, though he is thought to have  flourished sometime before 300 BC, making him senior to the final contributors to the Daodejing.

In this piece I have assumed that these late contributors to were responding to and developing themes found in Shen Dao. I think that it’s more likely that the Daodejing philosophises practical wisdom from sources like Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, and Sunzi than it is that the pure truths of philosophy informed political and military strategy. Furthermore, some passages in the Daodejing seem to assume and refer back to fuller statements in Shen Dao. The Daodejing does not necessarily perfectly agree with Shen Dao said; I only claim that the Daodejing author was familiar with the works of Shen Dao and developed them.

Below are seven groups of parallel passages, followed by my conclusions. 


Cherish your materials

Thompson (p. 527) recognizes the relationship between Shen Tao F35 and chapter 27 of the Daodejing. This is one of the cases when the expression of a theme in the Daoedejiing seems to refer back to a fuller statement of the theme elsewhere,  in Shen Dao in this case. The use of the same key words in all four passages makes coincidence almost impossible.




So the great ruler accepts the people’s capacities as his material , and protects and cares for all of them without favoring or rejecting any.

Shen Dao F35




Hence the sage is always good at saving people, and so abandons no one…. the bad man is the material for the good man.

Daodejing chapter 27


Thus all the great state wants is to care for others”

Daodejing  chapter 61




 [Tao] is the treasure of the good man and that by which the bad man is protected .  Even if a man is not good, should he be abandoned? 

Daodejing  chapter 62

NOTE: 苞, 寶, and保  were all pronounced similarly, and their meanings are related and overlapping.  苞 and 保 may stand for exactly the same word. (Sunzi XIII p. 164: 君之寶).

Loyalty / Dedication

忠 is usually translated “loyalty”. That is often but not always its meaning (see Goldin, 2008). In many contexts it means something like “conscientiousness” or “diligence” or “attentiveness” and even “fervor”. In my opinion the best single translation is “dedication / dedicated”, which overlaps with both conscientiousness and loyalty.

The general point being made is not dependent on the translation:  The problem with loyalty / diligence is that it cannot save a badly-ordered state, so that if such a state relies on loyal and heroically diligent ministers to save it, it will fail. A well-run state does not need to rely on exceptional efforts: if ordinary men correctly do their assigned tasks, that will be enough. If a state needs to rely on heroic effort, that is a sign that it is in trouble.


If loyalty fills the world, harm comes to the state.

Shen Dao H54


This shows us that loyalty is not enough to save a chaotic age, but instead can be something that multiplies its problems.

Shen Dao H49


When the state is in chaos, then you have loyalministers.

Daodejing, chapter 18

Beyond that, heroically loyal ministers are a kind of worthy 賢 and might become usurpers. In we read:


The ordering of disorder lies in worthy (賢) officers accepting their assignments, and not in their loyalty  忠.

Shen Dao H54

For a worthy to accept his assignments is to accept subordination and to limit himself to the performance of specifically assigned tasks, rather than to heroic efforts and passionate devotion to the prince. For Shen Dao and the Legalists this is the road to order, whereas reliance on loyal ministers and worthies are the roads to contention and disorder. The Daodejing ’s  idea of order is far different than the Legalists’, but they are alike in rejecting heroic striving.

Wisdom and cleverness

The word智  “wise / wisdom” is a little uncertain, sometimes meaning “wise” and other times merely “clever” or “learned”. Both the Daodejing  and Shen Dao are ambivalent about智, in some places rejecting or doubting wisdom and the wise, and in others accepting and praising them. In the negative passages, the wise, the loyal and the worthies are associated as virtuous but problematic players.



When the principles of government are lost, people look to the worthies (賢) and the wise (智); if the worthies and the wise are relied on, the state’s major decisions are left to the discretion of a single man.

Shen Dao C20.


When wisdom and cleverness arise, you get the great deception.

Daodejing   chapter 18


Cut off the Sage, get rid of the wise, and the people will benefit a hundredfold.

Daodejing   chapter 19


Selfishness and nepotism

With almost no exceptions except Yang Zhu and his followers, Chinese philosophies denigrate selfishness. The Daodejing and Shen Dao are no exception. Shen Dao goes a step further and also is suspicious of family feeling 親 when it interferes with government by leading to corruption, nepotism, and internal power struggles. For him all private initiative by state officials of the state is also selfish 私, and one of his forms of selfishness is private benevolence 私善 — when individual officials on their own initiative use public resources to do good.

Shen Dao’s principles in this respect are much like those of Mozi, for whom governmental actions should decided within a public 公 , impersonal, top-down decision-making procedure and passed down a chain of command.  This is far different than the system proposed by Confucius and Mencius, in which personal benevolence and family considerations were legitimate and influential, making Confucians government throughout history highly susceptible to graft and nepotism and inefficient for the attainment of any particular public goal.

The political parts of the  Daodejing take an attitude similar to that of Shen Dao, but in the passage from Chapter 7 we see a different, more mystical kind of selflessness oriented more towards personal self-cultivation than to the political order. Shen Dao apparently had a mystical side, which is described in the “Under Heaven” chapter of Zhuangzi, but there’s little evidence of this side of Shen Dao in the text reconstructed by Thompson.



Do not appoint lazy relatives to office, and do not let officials favor their own relatives

Shen Dao K67


In a state following Dao, the law is established so that private benevolence 私善 does not develop. (私議in the linked text: private or secret discussions, perhaps conspiracies).

Shen Dao L77


In every case a public form is established, and private codes rejected.

Shen Dao D73



The Dao of heaven has no kin ; it’s always with the good man.

Daodejing  chapter 79



Exhibit plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness and make the desires few.

Daodejing  chapter 19.



Is it not because he is selfless? Thus he can perfect himself.

Daodejing , chapter 7.

The Sea

Water is a recurring theme in Chinese philosophy, and sometimes rivers and the sea, and water —  in the Daodejing above all, but not only there:



When the sea and the mountain fight for water, the sea always wins.

Shen Dao E101



The way is to the world as the river and the sea are to rivulets and streams.  

Daodejing   chapter 32

Therefore the big rivers do not despise the little brooks as tributaries.

Mozi, Ch. I, “Qin Shi”

For people’s attitude toward profit is just like the tendency of water to flow downwards, without preference for any of the four sides.

Shang Yang, Book V, Duyvendak tr. P. 316

Shen Dao’s may be the first statement of this common theme (the first chapter of Mozi is eclectic and probably late). Confucius and Mencius thought quite differently about low-lying areas, which is where filth gathers.


There’s nothing much to say about these two passages, which say about the same thing.



If one possesses courage one does not act in anger but behaves as though one were cowardly. Shen Dao M112



One who excels as a warrior does not seem formidable; one who excels in fighting is never roused in anger .

Daodejing,  chapter 67


No harm

The phrase 不害 “does not harm” comes from the Yijing, and at some point it became a theme in descriptions of the Sage 聖人. Elsewhere I have arguing that the stress on the harmlessness of the Sage and of Dao was probably a trace of an ancestral Sage, not necessarily benign, of the shaman / wizard type. Confucius also rejected the more lurid aspects of Sagely power/


The Sage in high position does not harm men.

Shen Dao A5


Therefore the sage takes the lead but the people suffer no harm.

Daodejing  chapter 66


The Dao of Heaven benefits and does not harm.

Daodejing  chapter 81


Of the 11 chapters of the Daodejing in which I have found echoes of Shen Dao, only one, chapter 32, is what I call Early Dao, and the theme in this chapter is very widespread in Chinese philosophy and not usually identified with Shen Dao. The other ten are found in Sage Dao either in the section which I think was last added (chapters 67, 79, and 81 in chapters 67-81) or in the remainder of the book,(chapters 7, 18, 19, 61, 62, and 66).  These chapters form the core of  what I call the strategic layer of the Daodejing, a subtle and distinctly different approach to politics, government, and life.


John Emerson, “A translation of Thompson’s Shen Dao,

Paul R. Goldin, “Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese ‘Legalism’”,  Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Volume 38, Issue 1, pages 88–104, March 2011

Paul R. Goldin,   “When Zhong Does Not Mean ‘Loyalty’”, Dao, vol. 7, pp. 165-174, 2008.

Chad Hansen, Shen Dao,

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, tr. Lau, Hong Kong Chinese U., 1982.

Vitaly Rubin, “Shen Tao and Fa-Chia”, JAOS, Vol. 94, #3, 1974, pp. 227-346. ( )

Shen Dao, Chinese Text project.

P. M. Thompson,  The Shen Tzu Fragments, Oxford, 1979.

P.M. Thompson, A Translation of the Shen Tzu Fragments, vol. 3 of unpublished dissertation, U. Washington, Seattle.